‘The Vane Sisters’ by Vladimir Nabokov

The Vane Sisters by Vladimir Nabokov, 1958

The magic trick:

Maybe the ultimate literary word puzzle

I would think this story is fairly divisive among short story devotees.

On one hand, its famous last paragraph – in which the first letter of each word spells out a message that reflects back on several points of the story – is the work of mad genius. Who else does that kind of thing? Maybe Borges? Maybe? I mean, it’s really something.

On the other, you could see final paragraph as a silly gimmick propping up an otherwise pedestrian story. A move where self-referential devolves into the self-absorbed.

I can’t find too much fault with the latter argument. It’s not the way I feel about the story, though. I think the closing word puzzle, and the way the whole story folds in upon itself, is something close to brilliant.

And that’s quite a trick on Nabokov’s part.

The selection:

I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies – every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.

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